Archives For tensions

Prologuetriangulations and tetrahedronizations

Blog schedules be darned! This big eyed fish explored a new bowl and so the editorial staff has done a switcheroo.

Who out there noticed?

/crickets

Ok, maybe this is my way of telling you 1) we plan 2) there’s a “we” 3) this post has a lot going on and it’s possible the dots are not all connected.

Cannonball

#1

This weekend, I was slapped across the face. Literally. In front of my dog & pony dc co-ensemble members and a collection of artistic collaborators. By a man who we invited into our ensemble as part of a training. There are many other details I could share, but let’s open with this simple telling of the story.

#2

Being an ensemble member is hard.

“Team membership” brings with it immense power and responsibility. My guess is many few of us outside of the military and professional/life-practice team athletics truly knows this. In my world we tend to call it “ensemble member” or “ensembleship.” The variation between military or athletics, and ensemble, for us at least, is: the agency we endow individuals within the group; the equity with which we seek to operate and realize; the responsibility we share in manifesting shared vision and values; the trust we place and hold in the collective.

The thing about run-of-the-mill colleagues is that in most situations, they can easily avoid making choices, they can kick-back within hierarchy, they can maintain a narrow focus of impact, and everyone’s actions to superiors are either gestures of obedience, pledges of loyalty, or both.

The thing about run-of-the-mill leaders is that in most situations, they can give and take the semblance of power, they can tip over scales, they can give/ take/ reward/ punish/ spotlight/ ignore behaviors, and everyone else needs to have their trust earned by you.

But in our ensemble at least:

Every member of the company has an impact on the work and processes of every other member.

Membership in the company is a constant exercise in awareness, both of one’s own “orbit” within the company, and awareness of all the others. It requires personal flexibility to balance the work of the whole.

Because:

  • Agency can be taken or ignored.
  • Equity can balance despite variance, or it can remain disturbed and partisan.
  • Responsibility can be embraced or shrugged off.
  • Trust can be given and accepted, or withheld.

Reverse to #1 to launch into #3

So I was slapped across the face. Literally. In front of my co-ensemble members and a collection of collaborating artists. By a man who we invited into our ensemble as part of a company training.

Everyone physically remained in the room. I made a joke shortly afterward; transmitting a coded message to the ensemble (which turned out to be too coded). We processed through the moment, whether to engage in the exercise or not. I told everyone I was totally fine, and not to worry, transmitting another coded message to the ensemble members. (A number of them received it!) For the rest of the afternoon, many of the ensemble members were keenly aware of one another and the other collaborators in the room. Afterward there was informal processing in all sorts of small, private groups. There was some individual processing with me.

What stinks is that as a leader of an ensemble I’m keenly aware of how I must strive to epitomize our values and, sometimes, suck it up and ignore both ensembleship and me. However: I am still 1) an ensemble member and 2) an individual person. These three identities—Ring Leader, dog & pony dc ensemble member, Rachel—are a shifting triangle. When I add to that being female, white, young-ish, small statured, a loud talker, et cetera, the identity intersections I’m navigating at any given moment are mindboggling.

(What’s even more !KA-POW! is: everyone else is also navigating their own identity intersections. But, I’ve digressed. The point is…)

Back in company training this weekend, after the slap, I wasn’t fine. I’m not fine now. All the “processing” I engaged in didn’t take away the fact that I was slapped across the face in front of my co-ensemble members, because my leader-ensemble member-individual triangle held tight with “leader” at the apex for 36-hours. Should it have? Should I have re-triangulated within the group because ensemble? (aka “trust in the system”) Should the ensemble have recalibrated in such a way that encouraged or even forced that to occur? What does “leadership” actually mean within ensemble?

And so…

My initial simple telling of the story was inadequate. It was a moment bursting with complications that continue to spill out and spread across the floor. This writing is a necessary step in my clean up process. I’ve returned safe and sound to my bowl, and now am attempting to discern what I learned. And so, I leave these questions with you

What roles do agency, equity, responsibility, and trust play in your communities?

How can we all lead and follow by example?

How do you negotiate triangulating within a tetrahedron?

Previously on A Big Eyed Fish, in defining audience engagement I noted that it was “artcentric” and differed from community engagement and audience development.

In order to better show the relationship between a work of art, audience and community engagement, and audience development, I whipped up this infographic using my low-tech graphic design skills in PowerPoint:

Slide1Totally clears it all up, right?

Ok. Unlike a really excellent infographic, mine needs a little additional explanation.

Starting with the work of art:

  • The artwork drives our audience engagement programming choices. There’s a strong one-way relationship there and lots of overlap.
  • IMHO: audience engagement programming creation works best if we involve many different micro-communities or stakeholders  in the process. As a result of the art making or audience engagement program creation, we may form relationships with individuals outside our current artist/staff/board/audience/volunteer sphere. As soon as these new-to-us individuals or organizations become key participants in programming, this transitions into “community engagement.”* There is a strong two-way relationship between strategic community engagement and audience engagement, with some overlap.
  • The strong two-way relationship between audience and community engagement can result in a strong, positive audience growth for that specific artwork/art event or audience engagement program. It’s possible that as a result, this could result in future audience and community engagement programming.

While my infographic pales in comparison in terms of creativity and exploration of content, I believe it serves as a helpful reminder.  Each “programming area” has a distinct objective and, while related, they do not seek to achieve the same ends. Actors cannot play two objectives. Neither can engagement programmers. Don’t ignore what else is happening, but play out your part to its fullest.

 

*Note: as soon as one embarks on “community engagement” a different set of rules of engagement (pun intended) apply. More at another time but worth saying that you cannot “drag and drop” people. 

Are we being honest with ourselves about audience engagement work?  Let’s take a second look…

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

time-for-a-change-pic

 

 

Prologue

I am following up on recent DC theatre community hullabaloo and this New York Times piece about Oscar nominees.

Cannonball

This is a Helen Hayes Award:

It does close to nothing to advance individual theatre artists or arts organizations. Being nominated or receiving one. That is not meant to be an ungracious statement in the least. But really: let’s dispense with this belief.

#1

I was over the moon ecstatic for my husband the year he was first nominated for Outstanding Lighting Design. It was one of his first shows at a larger regional theatre, early in his professional career. I was even more ecstatic when he received his first award. Both designs, in my hyper-critical-but-also-super-biased opinion, were high caliber. In subsequent years, regardless of the quality of the production, designs of his that were truly outstanding were looked over and functional designs which looked like lights on stage or were just nothing earth-shattering were nominated for awards…. and nominated in “competition” with one another.  My husband has been nominated over 10 times and received 3 HHAs. He has received ONE (1) gig as a result of the award. (Which is a long story.)

#2

Matt Wilson, J. Argyl Plath & Jon Reynolds from 2011 premiere.

I was shocked, like scene-from-a-movie said “did they just say Beertown?” shocked when dog & pony dc received its first and only HHA nomination for Outstanding New Play or Musical for Beertown. Making the show had nearly broken up the ensemble, and to have made it through the 14-month devising and production in one piece, have the show critically well received, have decided to remount a show for our first time ever, then suddenly be heading into the remount with either an HHA nomination or an HHA winner felt like a triumph for a barely 4-year old company. More importantly for us, a company no one seemed to understand, we got to the the first ensemble to be nominated for this award: 17 of us were “the playwright.” 17 of us attended together with significant others and sat together and had a lovely reunion. When they didn’t say Beertown had received the award, we breathed a strange sigh of relief. When they showed the Beertown artwork last in the coming-soon montage, all of us agreed this was the Awesomest Night Ever. Because we were there with each other.

Yes, d&pdc lists the HHA nomination as an accomplishment because it gave us street credit and matured us slightly in the eyes of some larger funders, out of town producers, etc. However: no one locally sought to hire any of us, book any of us, or give any of us money. No one who saw Beertown in summer 2012 reported on our audience survey they came because they heard about the HHA. Most reported they heard it was a great show that they missed the first time around.

And so…

The largest thing Washington, DC’s theatre service organization, theatreWashington, does for theatre companies and artists is to produce an annual awards ceremony and party. Instead of questioning that fact, the community always seems to be questioning the way tW is coordinating and producing the awards and party. In every sub sector of our community, at every budget scale level.

Radical inquiry, but are we experiencing a tension here between service priorities and community needs? Possibly a tension DC theatres and artists are unable to see because we just accept the status quo of service?

tW exists to:

  • Create and invigorate audiences
  • Strengthen the regions theatrical workforce
  • Celebrate the excellence on Washington stages

tW’s first goal is to ensure its own operational stability; second is to heighten awareness of the theatrical landscape; third is “TO UNIFY AND STRENGTHEN THE PROFESSIONAL WASHINGTON REGIONAL THEATRE COMMUNITY THROUGH INNOVATIVE AND VALUED PROGRAMS AND SERVICES.” (emphasis mine)

Once I start meditating on tWs “about us” information these questions come to mind. And so I leave them with you:

Who is in control of the service–needs narratives in our personal and professional lives? 

How can providers be responsible and accountable to their communities? 

How can communities see beyond a set needs or a sphere of interests to one that is more broad or limited, more strategically short or long term?

How can a community leverage agency?

Being “Unplugged”

Bed View

My husband and I sit side-by-side most mornings here drinking coffee in bed, staring at a gorgeous rising sun and reading the newspaper. On our devices. I read the backlog of blog entries from the last 4-11 months. Sometimes I tweet them. I’ve been accused of not really being on vacation, because I’m using my iPhone. [sigh] No, I’m not disconnecting myself from the rest of the world while on vacation. I spend so much time disconnected from it as is on a daily basis. It’s a pleasure to have the time to re-engage with it. In fact: last year after vacation I attempted to carry forth the morning coffee and news reading ritual throughout the year (mild success). This year I’m experimenting with not bringing my phone, also my camera, with me everywhere. No access to anything, happy haters?, BUT, no picture taking. Gotta tell you: not missing it. Don’t need to document every day at the beach. Even tested a theory that no one would notice and posted a photo from two years’s ago vacation on Facebook:

A picture from Jan 2013!

This all reminds me of the study/project I was a part of at Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History’s Museum Camp 2014 about whether the use of technology allows you to enjoy nature more. At first I was on the “screw you anti-technology people, let us Instagram if we want to” side of the debate (impartial in the study, obviously). Now, definitely not so sure.

Privilege

On my mind a lot these days (read: years) but nothing like being on the beach with your spouse and good friends in January to bring it to the forefront. It’s also primary in my thoughts because of my work on Squares. (which has been in development since fall 2013 but kicks into higher gear in 2015) and an upcoming dog & pony dc ensemble meeting to review year one of our diversity and inclusion initiative, and plan for this year’s work (year one significantly changed our landscape). I’m in the privileged position of being able take personal and organizational-based action in myriad ways to raise awareness of privilege, seek to educate myself and others, create space for dialogue in which I can listen and be heard, promote intersectional thinking, and increase the spheres of people who are openly conversing and acting for equity. (Check this recent HowlRound post, I dug it.) So, no, I am not feeling guilty or bad (ok, maybe occasionally a little) In the midst of all this sunshine, sand, and surf, but this vacation allows me important reflection time. It’s vital amidst all the upcoming activity to remind, to reinforce that this work is a journey. There is no final destination we to reach. But we must always keep moving toward it.

Work /Life Balance

Cairns on the beaches of Vieques

Two colleagues mentioned they’re working on this in 2015, one who is trying to weight “life” more and one who is trying to weight “work” more. If I asked them, my guess is both–hell, everyone–would say I weight work too much…to the point of having almost no “life.” As a person with no children, though, and who currently manifests her passion in her job, my “work” and “life” are complicatedly intertwined. But let’s pause for a moment: what does this phrase “work/life balance” mean? Life means: friends? pets? significant other? children? going to happy hour? working out? binge watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? taking a figure drawing class? all of the above?

A friend/collaborator and I were talking about another mutual friend who’s spouse is very into cosplay. If I worked at a bank, but spent all my free time and disposable income on costumes and travel to conventions, would I have a work/life balance problem? No, we determined. “dog & pony dc is your cosplay.” she declared. Yes. This doesn’t mean I shouldn’t seek out relationships with others and go for drinks, hit the gym, binge watch Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., or expand my horizons. I like doing those things, and they make my work and life richer, more vibrant. They balance my scales.

Multiple Intelligences

For the first time since high school I am actively trying to learn another language, American Sign Language. It terrifies me. I’m known to utter the phrase “I barely speak English,” and I don’t think people understand how much that’s actually true. I’m highly insecure about my understanding of parts of speech, grammar, syntax, and my inability to spell. I eschewed formal classes, knowing that environment didn’t serve me in the past, finagled a most excellent ASL tutor and have excellent, understanding friends and collaborators who are Deaf or ASL interpreters. None the less: I’m petrified that it won’t actually take me years upon years, it will take me never. Is it possible that I’m too old to acquire a new language? Or is my brain not hardwired to learn languages? Yes, I am doing my ASL homework on vacation but I’m also obsessing about multiple intelligences theory and the diversity of mine.

Nothing

Which is to say I thing “the ocean is beautiful,” or “am I going to fall asleep,” or “rum is good,” or “I love my husband” for extended periods of time.

Approaching Navio beach, my favorite on Vieques.

Prologue

Wave Tension by Dale Witherow

“Do you sense a tension…”

“I’m hearing a tension…”

“Let’s explore that tension…”

The “t” word appeared many of my sentences last year as I attempted to more closely examine the relationship between beliefs or practices with conflicting implications, rather than my opinion of a particular situation.

What do I mean by “tensions”?:

  • the Narrative – Experience tension
  • the Impact – Reach tension
  • the Privilege – Responsibility tension

However: it isn’t until months later that I feel I’ve gotten enough distance on a particular event of 2014 to be able to clear my vision and articulate the tensions in spite of my opinions. I knew that when I jump started A Big Eyed Fish that I needed to force myself to tackle this topic in the first few posts.

There’s a laundry list of disclaimers I could go into, but instead I ask everyone to know that I am writing with the best intentions, writing solely from my personal perspective, and writing with the purpose of prompting reflection… and possibly dialogue.

Cannonball

This fall, Virginia-based theatre company WSC Avant Bard jointly produced the world premiere of Visible Language with Gallaudet University.  The show told “the true story of the 1890s culture war when two powerful and egotistical men—Alexander Graham Bell and Edward Miner Gallaudet—clashed over how the Deaf should be taught to communicate. The outcome of that contest…changed the life of every Deaf person in America.”

Tension: Hearing Production – Deaf Story

Visible Language was written, directed, featured, and publicly produced predominantly by hearing people. And I want to emphasize publicly produced; I was surprised to learn after see the show that it was a “joint production” (the phrase on WSC’s website) with Gallaudet University’s theatre department (addressing this next). The dominant language in the show was spoken English. The show was 100% captioned and a handful of scenes (regretfully I don’t know an exact number) transpired in American Sign Language (ASL). A number of the characters engaged in “Sim-Com” or simultaneous-communication, speaking English and signing at the same time, which is technically speaking two languages at the same time and still privileges the spoken word over the signed.

What responsibility does a company have to be aware of its own privilege when producing a show that features the history, stories, language, people, and voices of a non-dominant culture and community? What responsibility do the hearing artists who wrote and directed the show have to turning over the reins of artistic leadership of this project to their Deaf artist collaborators? Who was the most appropriate company to produce the show? Should it even have been finished in the first place, after having initially been commissioned numerous years ago by another company for which it may have been stewarded with more care? I am not suggesting that Avant Bard should not have tackled this project. I love that they did. But I question whether the privilege the hearing artists held, because they are hearing, prevented them from realizing the tremendous responsibility they were shouldering with this endeavor and the amount of capital they withheld from their collaborators.

Tension: Professional Production – University Production

 While Visible Language was a professional theatrical production, it was also the student production at Gallaudet. What is the responsibility of the producing organization to serving the needs of students when in partnership with academic institutions? The needs of the faculty and alumni? What was the impulse behind the partnership for the producing organization? What did Avant Bard provide the students of Gallaudet as far as professional training? How is that being extended beyond this one experience?

And, because Gallaudet is a higher education institution dedicated to the “advancement of deaf and hard of hearing individuals” and Avant Bard is a hearing theatre company…where was the imperative from Avant Bard to uphold and forward that mission through Visible Language?

Tension: Promotion of Inclusion – Maintaining Critical Standards

Washington Post closed out its review thus:Visible Language makes you want to lean in and understand.”

Washington City Paper with: “There’s something mightily impressive about the fact that a show attempting to do something so unprecedented suffers from such prosaic problems….The people who inspired Visible Language were no quitters, and its makers shouldn’t quit, either.”

DC Metro Theatre Arts noted the show “moves its audience with an urgent yearning to communicate beyond whatever barriers might exist, imagined or real.”

Which is AWESOME!

But these quotes were drawn from reviews that also commented on the production as being under-rehearsed (e.g. actors dropping large sections of lines), songs as “insipid,” script as “expository,” “moving forward with blunt strokes,” and “leading to a rushed conclusion that elicits more confusion than satisfaction.” Read all the mainstream reviews for Visible Language in full, and one gets a feeling of cheerleading an underdog.

Broadwayworld.com remarks: “Avant Bard Artistic Director Tom Prewitt, Director of Visible Language, promises a ‘unique experience for theatergoers whether they are Deaf or hearing,’ and there is no question that this is a promise fulfilled. “ How does the reviewer, who I am guessing is hearing, know this?

A Twitter conversation on #OccupyVL (a hashtag initially started just for the group I attended the show with to discuss our reactions) revealed:

@jrscoyote Yes, and the pacing and staging is driven by the music, so the signing seems ‘shoehorned’ in and suffers accordingly #OccupyVL

@DrKVG I see it as driven by ENGLISH not by music. The ASL had no connections to music in terms of beat, handshape, motion etc. #OccupyVL

Also shared on the hashtag from the blog Surdus Explores:

“Most songs are given the SEE [Signed Exact English] treatment, which renders them fairly meaningless. A poem closes the show; it receives the same treatment. While SEE can help us perceive the English side of a poem in writing, it doesn’t lend itself to the performance of meaning.”

I share all this not to debate or debunk the critics, or to say the production was not a worthy endeavor. On the contrary—the exact opposite. However: what is the balance of critical review and promotion of inclusion, of equity, on DC stages? What role can the media play in this? How might the critics, writing for audiences not artists, encourage mainstream population (i.e. hearing) attendance at productions like Visible Language but in a way that doesn’t perpetuate cycles of inspiration porn?

And so…

Still, three months after seeing the show, I remain disappointed in my hearing peers’ decisions with this production. While I don’t believe they acted with any ill intentions, I believe they acted with the paper bag of hearing privilege over their heads. Who knows whether it was the scope of the project, the notoriety, the possibility for notoriety, or just the simply not knowing, and with some education, thinking you know all?

Not knowing the full story, I can only surmise based on what it felt like from the outside.

The tension in the tangled

But I am left with these questions, and so I leave you:

  • What is the producers’ responsibility in carrying conversations forward that their productions begin, once the show is done?
  • What is the tension between the privilege we have as non-profit arts organizations and our responsibility to the communities with which we collaborate? the communities we serve? the greater communities that support us?